Haute rod hits road

French show car is like driv­ing in a noisy fan-forced oven but it’s an in­trigu­ing recipe

The Advertiser - Motoring - - FIRST DRIVE - JOHN CAREY

IT TOOK a prickly plant to show Citroen the way out of its de­sign desert. With the Air­cross Con­cept, the French brand wants to make sure ev­ery­one knows there’s much more where the C4 Cac­tus came from.

The Cac­tus com­pact cross­over, which will ar­rive in Aus­tralia around Fe­bru­ary, is a truly orig­i­nal piece of car de­sign. It has won awards and cus­tomers alike since go­ing on sale in Europe last year.

The Air­cross Con­cept, un­veiled in April at the Shang­hai mo­tor show, is a one­off show-car SUV about the same size as a Mazda CX-5.

Its rounded body­work and em­pha­sis on pro­tec­tive fea­tures are ob­vi­ous vis­ual links to the C4 Cac­tus.

Here’s an ex­am­ple. Air­bumps are the Cac­tus’s most talked-about fea­ture. These rub­bery side pro­tec­tion pan­els, with their bulging air bub­bles, make it un­mis­tak­able. The higher-rid­ing Air­cross Con­cept in­stead shows off the sideim­pact-ab­sorb­ing alu­minium hon­ey­comb built into the bot­tom edges of its four doors.

Citroen, once revered for brave de­sign, seems poised for a big-time come­back.

So when the French com­pany called, Cars­guide ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion to go to Paris to drive the Air­cross Con­cept. There would be time, too, to talk with Fred­eric Du­vernier.

As well as be­ing de­sign man­ager of the Air­cross Con­cept pro­ject, the lanky 38year-old French­man also penned the ex­te­rior de­sign of the C4 Cac­tus … and in­vented Air­bumps.

The Air­cross Con­cept is aw­ful to drive. All con­cept cars are. They’re hastily made, for show­ing, not go­ing. The hand­built Citroen jerks as if it’s been poked with a cat­tle prod when its auto is put into gear. The unas­sisted brakes barely work. The steer­ing is un­be­liev­ably heavy. The re­flec­tions from the white dash­board make it hard to see the road.

The in­ter­nal rear view mir­ror has fallen off some­where be­tween Shang­hai and Paris and the fixed ex­ter­nal mir­rors give a view of the road be­hind, noth­ing more.

The mas­sive 22-inch Con­ti­nen­tal show-car tyres whine louder than the jets tak­ing off from the run­way be­side our drive route on the out­skirts of the French cap­i­tal. The elec­tric mo­tor and bat­tery in the Air­cross’s hy­brid driv­e­train aren’t work­ing.

Worst of all, there’s no air­con. It’s about 30 de­grees on a sunny sum­mer day and the Air­cross has a fixed glass roof and side win­dows that don’t open. It’s like driv­ing a very noisy fan-forced oven.

But none of this mat­ters. The Air­cross Con­cept isn’t a pro­to­type of a car that’s headed for pro­duc­tion. Think of it in­stead as a state­ment of in­tent.

Ac­cord­ing to Du­vernier, there were doubters in­side Citroen who couldn’t be­lieve its unique look could work on other kinds of cars.

“We re­ally had to prove it and make a car in an up­per seg­ment (of the mar­ket),” he says of the Air­cross Con­cept. “This aes­thetic … we will re­ally de­velop it for pro­duc­tion.”

The Air­cross shows Citroen’s de­sign­ers can cre­ate main­stream cars that stand out, just as the brand did in the past.

“If we look back at Citroen’s history, there was al­ways this out-of-the-box think­ing,” Du­vernier says. “There was a good ques­tion, and a nice an­swer.”

The de­signer cites Citroen’s post-WWII econ­omy car, the 2CV (“a sim­ple car for sim­ple peo­ple with a bas­ket of eggs”), and the com­fort of older Citroens’ pump-up sus­pen­sion tech­nol­ogy (“in­cred­i­ble on the street”), as ex­am­ples of the brand’s abil­ity to pro­duce orig­i­nal an­swers to real needs.

Du­vernier isn’t in­ter­ested in find­ing out whether Citroen can sur­vive by do­ing cars like ev­ery­one else’s. “Isn’t it more in­ter­est­ing to ask the good ques­tions?” he says.

“Why are cars un­com­fort­able? Why are cars too com­pli­cated to use? Why are cars too big, overde­signed? If you ask this se­ries of ques­tions, maybe you have dif­fer­ent an­swers than the com­peti­tors.”

“The sim­pler, the bet­ter, ba­si­cally,” is how Du­vernier sums up his de­sign think­ing. Sim­plic­ity sur­vives, the de­signer be­lieves, and he names ex­am­ples rang­ing from Fer­raris from the ’50s and ’60s to Citroen’s own fu­tur­is­tic DS of the mid-’50s.

“I be­lieve that this kind of de­sign can last longer and cre­ate a kind of calm and quiet­ness,” he adds. What’s more, there’s room for cars that aren’t styled to look snarly.

“Maybe there’s a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to car de­sign that can con­vey a kind of friend­li­ness. Not be­ing like a friendly face but just be­ing not ag­gres­sive. I think some brands are very true to this.

“Porsche is not be­ing over­ag­gres­sive. What they do has a func­tion. They are not be­ing show-off, be­cause they don’t need to.”

Citroen should aim to be more Porsche-like, even though the French brand must op­er­ate in the main­stream. “All the other com­peti­tors, maybe they try to add more,” Du­vernier says. “We be­lieve that maybe we can put less.

“On the Cac­tus, I think we’ve put the value, the money, where we wanted to. It’s not a more ex­pen­sive car than the com­peti­tors. It’s quite af­ford­able, but Air­bumps, they cost some money. But we de­cided to have the Air­bumps to be dif­fer­ent.

“So we placed the value there, and maybe not on the rear win­dows, which no­body opens … in Europe at least.”

Citroen’s de­sign­ers are mak­ing sim­i­larly tough choices that will change the brand’s im­age for years to come.

“Now we work on the 2020 gen­er­a­tion,” says Du­vernier, “and we have to think about all this ...”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.